Montreal Canadiens: 6 Reasons They Will Be Stanley Cup Contenders in 2011-2012
Montreal and Boston, Game 7, overtime. We all remember how close it was last year. In fact, the Habs gave the eventual champions a better run for their money than any other team did.
The kicker? They did it without Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, their top two defencemen. They also did it without James Wizniewski, who was brought in to ease the pain and recently signed for 6 years and $33 million in Columbus. Max Pacioretty, who had been their best player since moving up from Hamilton, was also absent because of a near-fatal encounter with the Bruins' Zdeno Chara. They were other injuries as well.
The season before last a healthy Habs team knocked both the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and defending Champions Pittsburgh Penguins out of the playoffs, shocking the hockey world. Two years before that, we won the conference.
The point here is that the Canadiens have been contenders in the East for years, but were never quite good enough to get it done. Well, here are five reasons this year will be different...
Carey Price Is Coming into Vezina Form
After shocking the hockey world in his rookie season with 41 GP and a .920 save percentage, this young phenom was set to take over the hockey world. Of course, everybody thought that to be impossible when he had his sophomore slump. Well, the good news is here. Carey Price is developing into an elite goalie, and the stats don't lie.
In the past three seasons Carey Price has shown a natural, steady improvement in his game. Check the stats:
2008-2009: .905 SV%, 2.83 GAA
2009-2010: .912 SV%, 2.77 GAA
2010-2011: .923 SV%, 2.35 GAA (and 72 games played)
This steady growth has had a calming effect on Carey, who was once considered a reckless young prospect. His 72 games played last season — 73 if you include the All-Star game - show that he is a definite number 1 goalie, and he is only 24 years old. Is Marc Andre-Fleury an elite goaltender? Carey Price already has better career stats.
The continued development of Carey Price is just one reason why the Habs will be contenders in 2011-2012. But it doesn't stop there.
Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges Will Stabilize the Defence
Andrei Markov has been our best player for years. Josh Gorges has turned into our most dependable stay at home defenceman. We played most of last year without either of them. Both players ended their seasons early to have reconstructive knee surgeries.
Everybody knows that Markov is a powerplay genius. We usually boast one of the top powerplays when he is healthy. And there is no denying the fact that we win with him and lose without him. Josh Gorges has turned into a minute-logging penalty killing machine, spending season after season as our unsung hero.
Without our top tandem last year, PK Subban and Hal Gill did an excellent job as our top pair; but that meant that our second pair was the ageing Roman Hamrlik (now in Washington) and Jaroslav Spacek. With Markov and Gorges back, we have two strong defensive pairs in Markov-Gorges and Subban-Gill.
Look for the Habs to play a solid season in their own end. Carey Price will benefit from the return of our top defensive pair, and so will the team.
Erik Cole: The Missing Piece to the Puzzle
For years they have been saying it. The Canadiens are good, but they are too small. First it was Koivu, Bouillon and Tanguay. Now it is Gionta, Cammalleri, Gomez, and newcomer David Desharnais. If only the Canadiens were a little bigger, they could be true contenders.
Well, this summer Pierre Gauthier went out and did something about it. He brought in Erik Cole, a bonafied power forward and signed him to a 4-year deal worth $18 million. Sure, he is no Milan Lucic. But he plays great in Montreal. In fact, while everybody says that he can only play in Carolina - due to his poor stint in Edmonton - he has been killing the Habs for years, especially at the Bell Centre. That's right. He plays his best hockey at the Bell Centre. He grew up as a Habs fan and benefits from that boost every time he plays us. Now he is on our side.
At 32 years old, Erik Cole should still be dependable for providing 20-25 goals directly, and will likely create enough space on the ice to help our smaller, skilled players net another 15-20. This should equal at least a few more wins and a couple of rankings in the standings.
Cole should provide an offensive spark, but he won't be the only one doing so.
Max Pacioretty Is Here to Stay
Habs fans have been waiting a few years now for both Max Pacioretty and Matt D'Agostini to develop into quality power forwards. They were dabbled around on the third line for a couple of years, travelling back and forth between Hamilton and Montreal. D'Agostini was traded to the Blues and Pacioretty was left with something to prove.
Prior to last season, Pacioretty told the Habs that if he is starting the season in Hamilton, they should let him develop and not call him up until he is ready to stay. Pacioretty tore up the AHL before being called up for good. After re-joining the Habs again, he posted 14 goals and 10 assists in 37 games before Zdeno Chara decided that he had had enough with him. Barring another assault from the big yellow giant, Pacioretty looks set to be a 30-goal scorer with plenty of years to improve.
Pacioretty will likely play with Gionta and Gomez (who did find his game when Pacioretty was on his line); and Plekanec will likely centre Cammalleri and Cole. This will give the Habs an actual power forward on each of their top two lines.
PK Subban as 'The Factor'
PK Subban has earned himself quite a few different reputations in his young career. Mike Richards says he is "cocky" and "something might happen to him". Some say he is a diver. Some say he hits recklessly. Some say he is a young superstar. I think the best description I have heard is the one calling him "The Factor".
PK Subban is a talented young player. There is no doubting it. He was in the All-Star Weekend skills competition, and is widely recognized as one of the best young offensive defenceman in the league. Is he cocky? Sure. Confident? Definitely.
Early last season, when everybody thought he was overplaying his hand, veteran Hal GIll took him aside and apparently called him another name for a rear orifice. After that, they were partnered together for the rest of the season. Suddenly PK was being recognized for his equally impressive defensive skills. PK started to eat up more and more minutes, playing a team-best 28:34 in the playoffs, and leading all Canadiens in minutes played over the last couple months of the season.
The continued development of PK Subban as a star defenceman will only help the Habs. Having Markov and Gorges back should ease a little bit of the pressure as well. With PK Subban playing on our second pair, the Habs have a lot to be excited about this year.
Eller, Desharnais, White, Yemelin and Our Youth Movement
Remember Jaroslav Halak? Remember how he was traded for some no-namer named Lars Eller? It seems that the Canadiens may have actually got the better end of that deal. Halak had a mediocre season in St. Louis with flashes of brilliance, as did Eller in Montreal. At age 22, this former first-rounder has given us a glimpse of what he has to offer: soft hands, a strong frame, smart hockey, and dependable defensive hockey. He can be counted on to guard against players like Ovechkin and Bergeron, and he is just finding his game. Eller should develop into a dependable two-way player capable of logging lots of minutes.
David Desharnais, at 5'7" and 170 lbs., seems like a typical Habs' mistake. If you are not Marty St. Louis or Theoren Fleury, there is no hope, right? Well Desharnais doesn't seem to think so. Though one of the smallest players in the league, he showed why he is bigger than he looks, squaring off against Chara in numerous physical battles without looking out of place. in 43 games played, he netted 8 goals and 22 points as a rookie. Desharnais will likely play on the third line with Eller and Kostitsyn this year. Look for him to be a 20 goal scorer over the next couple of seasons.
Ryan White will be a career depth player. He will never score 20 goals, won't see any significant time on the powerplay, and won't be expected to contribute much offensively. He is there to crash, bang, hit, fight, and energize the team. He was one of the NHL leaders in hits per minute, and our only player willing to drop the gloves on any given night. He is no Bob Probert, but he brings a physical game that we failed to get from an ageing Georges Laraque. Along with Eric Cole and Max Pacioretty, he gives a third option to send in an bang around the net. He can be counted on to provide some spark and help us face off against teams that want to push us around.
Finally, Alexei Yemelin will finally don the Habs uniform. Expectations for him are mixed, and debates continue over whether or not he is "NHL-ready". What we do know is that he is an offensively-sound, hard-hitting defenceman. We also know that he is good enough to dictate a clause that will allow him to head back to Russia if he doesn't get the playing time he thinks he deserves. Yemelin will provide additional offence from the back-end, where the likes of Hamrlik, Sopel and Mara are gone, and Markov, Subban, Yemelin and Weber will lead a new offensively sound D-corps.